Thursday, 5 July 2012

Haruspex 93


Before a visible audience, observed more closely between acts (along with some 'backstage' banter that includes historical figures like Cosimo Medici, participating as both 'cast' and 'audience'), a morality play is performed in 17th century Italy during the counter-reformation: The Baby of Macon (1993), a land plagued by famine which hasn't seen a birth in years. Perhaps miraculously, an (unseen) ancient hag gives birth to a Baby in perfect health, and for this reason no-one believes the child to be hers. Her virgin Daughter (Julia Ormond) claims The Baby as her own divine progeny, acquiring an appropriate air of regality; and sells blessings to the desperate townspeople. Despite her fraudulent claim, the famine begins to end. The Church, represented by The Bishop (Philip Stone), are as resentful of her success as modern skeptics like The Bishop's Son (Ralph Fiennes). The latter is particularly insistent on proving The Daughter to be a fraud, his mechanistic views betraying an aggression towards female autonomy. She offers to prove her virginity to him by having sex. This is witnessed by The Baby, who orders a bull to disembowel the Bishop's Son. Covered in blood, The Daughter is blamed by The Bishop for his son's death. He then confiscates The Baby to exploit Macon with far more vigor than The Daughter did, who in turn suffocates her Baby to death. The Daughter is apprehended, but cannot be hung due to being a virgin. Her punishment is what led to most of the film's controversy or condemnation: The Bishop sentences her to be raped 208 times. 

At this point the diegesis separating ''actors' and 'audience' breaks down; calling into question how many earlier scenes should be considered part of the 'play'. Closing the curtains on the 'audience', The Daughter reminds her 'rapists' that "you don't have to act anymore - the audience can't see you". Realizing that this hasn't deterred them, she invokes the virginity she has in common with her 'character'. The camera backs away to explore the auditorium, but both theatre and cinema audience continue to hear her screams - for over ten minutes. Although unseen, it could be the most disturbing scene filmed by a very violent film-maker. Some of the audience cry out their objection to this 'scene', only to be reminded by a rapist that we should be grateful to hear this, as "most of us die in silence". Following the death of the Daughter, the Baby's corpse is dismembered by the Church (in very graphic detail). Every little piece of him is sold as a religious relic, but famine returns to Macon. Both cast (apart from The Daughter and The Bishop's Son, both 'really' dead) and audience bow to us and each other in several directions from several angles and we, the cinema audience, are left bewildered as to who is actually performing for whom. The film concludes as a vertiginous hall of mirrors; encouraging nausea, shock and confusion in equal measure. Does Greenaway intend to make us sick? And if so, why do so using this 'play within a play' conceit? Unlike The Draughtsman's Contract or Drowning By Numbers, its internal 'puzzle' stubbornly refuses any notion of 'fun'. And despite its characteristically ornate design, it takes serious issue with the notion of 'art' too.


Considered too oblique, ripe and indulgent by many, Greenaway’s films were broadly satirical tableaux of changes occurring in Britain from the 80s to 90s. The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) allegorized how Thatcherism overthrew an impotent political establishment, while it seduced the skilled petit bourgeois, leaving the bigger picture ever-so-slightly out of frame. His painterly alienation effects (he trained as a muralist) were appropriate under a regime staging its leader’s image with obsessive attention, down to her rhythms of speech and every hair on her head. Drowning By Numbers (1988) approached the renegotiation of gender roles as a carefully manoeuvred Jacobean coup; domestic war played as a game of symmetry. His most widely-seen film, chiaroscuro noir The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) lampooned the national carve-up, a cannibalistic orgy that relentlessly butchered culture, utility, leisure, sex and labour into meat, served to the most ruthless appetites. Greenaway’s many visual quotes from the Renaissance allude to the murderous source of its innovations: The bourgeois project of primitive accumulation; a process echoed by neoliberalism, which hypnotically accelerated like the time-lapsed fruit punctuating A Zed and Two Noughts (1985). In this context, it's unsurprising that Greenaway’s Shakespeare adaptation would be his fable of primitive colonialism The Tempest.

Greenaway’s follow-up to Prospero’s Books (1991) had a severely limited release. This was the first Greenaway feature that wasn’t scored by Michael Nyman, who found a mainstream audience scoring middlebrow hit The Piano. The soundtrack Greenaway used wasn't so much minimalist as bare minimum. After performing in the film, Julia Ormond’s appearances became noticeably rare. Although audiences, critics and awards panels heaped acclaim upon Ralph Fiennes’ torture and murder of Warsaw Jews in Schindler’s List (1993), his performance in Macon is rarely mentioned. A mere four years after The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover topped several ‘year’s best’ lists, Macon either received angry denunciations or was ignored entirely. With the possible exception of the The Pillow Book (1996), starring then-hot Ewan MacGregor, the director’s career never quite recovered. Funding dried up and his place in ‘British Cinema’ was quietly scrubbed away, in the tradition of eccentric British auteurs like Michael Powell, Lindsay Anderson, Nicholas Roeg and Ken Russell. Greenaway retreated back into the world of fine art and further away from narrative.


Taking a minority opinion, The Baby of Macon may be Greenway’s best film. It's actually his least pretentious work, condensing previous themes with a wilfully grotesque, stark brutality. Its ‘play within a play’ scenario makes no attempt to distance the audience from the cruelties of its late Renaissance setting. It angrily mocks 'family values' and implies acting 'in gender' entails as much violence as its enforcement in reality. Framed with more immediacy than Greenaway’s earlier films, it has the effect of being more claustrophobic. Its ceremonial dialogue (filled with dirty jokes and endless, unanswered questions) only enhances the visual impact of its barbarity. It avoids the stale ‘angry young man’ routine of Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), rejects the reconciliatory talent show of The Full Monty (1997), and spits in the eye of that cynical tableaux Heritage Britain (Cool Britannia’s stepfather). Its failure may be due to a misunderstanding – or outright rejection – of what it’s actually about. It isn’t simply a critique of religious hypocrisy, or the misogynistic hate-crime it was accused of being. It’s admittedly very difficult to watch – or indeed see now – but it offers the most caustic, lacerating view of modern Britain; carving up its performance of ideology, gender, morality and rule of law. It’s a relatively direct, topical interrogation of how the British political economy organizes ways of seeing: The reproduction of national narratives.


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On the 12th of February, 1993, two year-old James Patrick Bulger was abducted from a shopping centre, tortured, murdered and dismembered (left deliberately on a railway track to make it look like an accident) by two ten year-old boys. Before their arrest, another boy was questioned. Before police confirmed his innocence, his family had fled the city for fear of their lives. Within days of the murder, and before any charges were made, there had already been arson attempts on ‘suspect’ homes. Bulger’s abduction was caught on CCTV – at a time when it was becoming ubiquitous in public spaces – and released to the media. Witnesses who didn’t intervene seeing a visibly distressed and bruised toddler being dragged away by two children (who claimed to be relatives) gained brief press notoriety as the ‘Liverpool 38’. When the accused arrived for their first day at the Magistrate’s court, over five hundred people had gathered to ‘protest’. What they were actually ‘protesting’ remains unclear. The crowd did, however, attempt to seize the van in which the defendants were transported. I could offer an educated guess as to what their intentions were: The abduction, torture, murder - and probably dismemberment – of two children. To this day, there are campaigns (backed by ‘celebrities’ and the Murdoch press) demanding that the Home Office publicly release details of the murderers’ locations and identities. Again, we can guess why revealing this is would be in the ‘public’ interest. As a comparative experiment in emotional theatre, I suggest you bring up the name of Robert Black, to see if you get any response at all; that is if you actually remember him.


The murder generated a great deal of shock and ‘public’ revulsion. I put ‘public’ in inverted commas because those of us less enthusiastic about cruel and unusual punishment - or lynching - often find the safest option is silence. As is usual with hatred fuelled by moral panic, to simply remind Mr. & Mrs. Outraged UK of due process of law can be risky. Eighteen years later, pointing out legal irregularities in this case can provoke angry – sometimes violent – responses. Despite how the law was rapidly changed in response to this one crime, it has been repeatedly subject to unlawful activity by the media, judges and Home Secretaries. Not only does England have the lowest age for criminal responsibility in Europe, privacy laws protecting children have been diluted and deregulated, and the influence of government on court decisions far exceeds national security concerns. The Bulger murder was arguably the most important ‘peacetime’ case to shift the balance between family and government, childhood and adult responsibility, punishment and rehabilitation, government and judiciary. These shifts all sharply diverted from what most of us would consider ‘progressive’. At the very least, boundaries have become so blurred that they may have reversed dozens of reforms and safeguards from the preceding century.

Doli incapax – or, the assumption of limited responsibility on the part of minors - was deemed irrelevant by prosecuting barristers, and the court agreed. While new psychiatric theories and ‘profiling’ asserted priestly authority within education, social services and the courts – celebrated everywhere from trashy, exploitative detective show Cracker to trashy, exploitative horror movie The Silence of the Lambs – this legal innovation was confirmed with the Holy Writ of psychiatric opinion (backed with the prestige of BAFTAs and Oscars). That many judgements have been overturned after the discrediting of mystical nonsense like Satanic Ritual Abuse or Munchausen’s-by-Proxy, peddled by a cadre of ambitious frauds, is neither here nor there. Especially since ‘profiling’ has proven ever so handy for catching Scary Muslims. Noises were made – not least by the presiding judge - about the deadly influence of ‘video nasties’, in particular a film that neither defendant had actually seen: Child’s Play 3. This didn’t prevent the all-encompassing Criminal Justice Act of 1994 from including rules on the sale of videos to children. Despite CCTV being proven useless in preventing James Bulger’s death, it didn’t prevent demands for further surveillance. As is increasingly the case this century, moral panic granted the state further rights to enforce power over everyday life.


Home Secretary Michael Howard made several interventions in the case, the main one overruling the initial sentence; adding five years to the Lord Chief Justice’s additional two. Howard’s one-upmanship followed a petition led by those passionate advocates for children’s justice The Sun. This, when the Rt. Hon. Mr. Howard Q.C. personally intervened to drastically reduce the sentence of a notorious Welsh gangster; who just happened to be his cousin (look it up), while assisting with writs to bury its reporting. His actions regarding the Bulger case were later ruled illegal, by both the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights (a foreign body still posing an existential threat to Free Britannia). That the Home Office routinely ignores other petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures doesn’t diminish the value of those they don’t. Taking time out from flushing the economy down the toilet, Prime Minister John Major responded to the murder with a stirring speech, stating it was time we understood less and condemned more (a statement I couldn’t quite understand, to be honest). Democracy, like justice, happens wherever they ask us to look.

Bulger’s killers were tried as adult ‘monsters’, and special chairs were supplied so both were able to see over the dock. Neither child said a word throughout the trial. Impatient to ransack their life stories, journalists settled for detailed reporting of their demeanour during the trial; contravening (then) standard media law. Due to ‘overwhelming public reaction', the judge declared after sentencing that the condemned should have their names, photographs and biographical details open to public scrutiny. Over the following decades this scrutiny hasn’t ceased and, despite further relaxation of reporting restrictions, local and national newspaper editors continue to the flout the law regarding this case. It’s become something of a national obsession, everywhere from The Sun to the Guardian, BBC News to endless radio phone-ins. It’s notable how much ‘revelations’ about the murderers’ lives obsess over their bodies: travel, sexual activity, illness, ingestion of drugs or alcohol, physical scuffles. For all the constant demands in the name of ‘public interest’, the environments and social relations that actually form the basis of their lives remain strangely anonymous. To locate ‘evil’ is to situate it in limbo, outside nature and society, until Final Judgement.

Before, during and after the trial, ‘investigations’ into the Dark Heart of Liverpool – a city admonished for its ‘untamed’ volatility by central government legislation, Harry Enfield sketches and Neil Kinnock – filled column inches in every newspaper; much of it redefining material poverty as a moral wasteland in need of salvation. Bulger’s murder unleashed a distinctly suburbanized version of apocalypse porn, complementing a more settled metropolitan contempt for de-industrialized ‘heartlands’. Tony Parsons unfavourably compared Britain’s “tattooed jungle” to the house-proud, hard-working proletariat of his parents’ generation - that mythical working class that accepted its lot stoically and hygienically – in Arena, a magazine soon to abandon its urbane pretensions and adopt the reactionary kitsch of ‘new laddism’, a lucrative menu of militarism, mutilation and mammaries. In the absence of coherent government ‘vision’, new hegemonic designs were converging. Although Thatcherism was granted some blame for ‘moral decline’, a curious stew of thuggish nimbyism, theatrical psychobabble and morbid sentimentality gradually came to the boil: the paradigm of talk shows then starting to dominate daytime TV. Utilizing his ‘common touch’ (perfected mourning the People’s Princess) Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair seized an opportunity to give a sermon decrying the spiritual decay of the working class. Space restricts discussion of how his abduction, torture, murder and dismemberment of entire nations has in any way reversed this process. A re-emergent far right found common ground with the populist spin of New Labour and John Major’s Back to Basics campaign; all of which laid claim to our ‘genuine concerns’.

At the very least, the narrative of moral outrage demands instant reaction. As with any number of modern tragedies, cottage industries emerged from the wreckage; building careers, fuelling campaigns, redrafting clauses in the social contract, restructuring modes of emotional exchange, extracting ever more value from ‘genuine concerns’ - a piece for everybody. Consolidating the counter-reformation of the 80s, these moments of community cannibalism occur at levels of emotional flatulence once alien to this country; at least within living memory. I’m weary of indulging clich├ęs about ‘collective consciousness’, but I can’t help but view these outbursts of hysteria as attempts to fill a vacuum, only serving to create black holes from which no light escapes. Press terminology encloses ambiguity with violently totalizing language: Storm, Beast, Fury, Tragic, Shock, Pervert, Monster, Scrounger, Terrorist, Horror, Yob, Hero. Occasionally these definitions exchange places. But this isn’t just an issue of tabloids. Buried beneath layers of pseudo-scientific speculation, barbaric ignorance, moral bankruptcy, profitable opportunism, emotional theatrics and judicial spectacle lies the body of a child whose short life ended in ways we’ll never fully understand; or perhaps really want to. That many felt they could make sense of it by demanding more dead children belies a famine that's neither spiritual, moral or even material. It’s the nameless, deserted wasteland that lies between each and every one of us. Whether we’ll ever recognise it for what it is remains to be seen. But of one thing I’m certain: Sitting too close to the screen - or stage - can seriously harm your eyes. 

9 comments:

ralph dorey said...

This is fantastic Wayne. The "priestly authority" of the profiler is really the same role as played by other enforcer wings of churches and governments past. I don't know of a time or place where mental illness and evil have ever been truly separated in a cultural vernacular but the mid nineties does seem a high point for this violence-as-hygiene. I don't it is a coincidence that care in the community kicked in around this point also. For a lot of Britain the sight of the once hidden strata of society is something it has never recovered from, feeling swamped by a thing that it wants only to cleanse in an act that feels like a mix between fear of infection and lust for a straw dog.

It's also interesting, reflecting on what you write about this being an incident where even now it is risking so suggest the mob might have not acted rationally. I wander if this time marks a shift in the national distrust of social workers as apologists or co-conspirators. But why was the country so ready to hate children in 1993 do you think?

David W. Kasper said...

The British have had a strange 'cultural' hostility to children for a long time, I reckon. In class terms, there may be some resentment that working-class children no longer work in factories or up chimneys. It's interesting that the current government wants to lower school-leaving age. And of course erase benefits entirely for anyone under 25 (which would encourage another neo-Victorian obsession: conscription). You're right about the visibility of the poor (and mentally ill, immgrants etc) vis a vis the 'hygeine' of national cohesion. Like there's some nice, clean children's story they need to tell themselves over and over again (I think Harry Potter appeals to this need in a way, espeically as its arguably more a parental obsession than a kid's thing)

Interesting point about social workers. It used to be poor people that were most weary of them (from the days when they could confiscate your children for 'moral' reasons like unwed motherhood etc.). Now it's shifted to a middle-class thing - but because social workers represent pandering 'do-gooders', not moral disciplinarians. A hatred of the 'nanny state' from the only people who actually grew up with them.

Phil Knight said...

Funny how Greenaway, who was a BIG DEAL during the 80's, has been forgotten.

I think his most interesting pieces were "The Draughtsman's Contract", and "Belly Of An Architect" whose historically informed and unwelcome message was "the plutocracy are imbeciles who will lead you astray."

We now have The Shard, of course.

David W. Kasper said...

As a teenager, Greenaway would normally be the kind of thing I hated, but I found myself watching all his films more than once - and liking most of them. It is funny how his films would be shown on C4 to much fanfare once (even with previews presented by Greenaway himself). Maybe a combo of the Broadcasting bill (killing 'public service TV' overnight) and 'British cinema' coming to mean Danny Boyle, Richard Curtis and all those 'Thatcherism redeemed' films of the mid-late 90s. For such a scrappy, bitty 'industry' Brit-film likes its tidy, linear success stori8es to be singing from the same hymnsheet really.

Phil Knight said...

Maybe.....but I sometimes wonder how much we judge what are accidents of copyright into ideological swerves e.g. Bob Dylan and Prince refusing permission to put their music on Youtube (I'm not complaining, mind) being interpreted years later as an attempt to push e.g. Celine Dion.

I always put Greenaway and Jarman together in my mind in the 80's as hyper-quirky subversive ultra-Englishness THAT YOU COULD NOT AVOID EVEN IF YOU WANTED TO.

I must have seen "Drowning By Numbers" and "Caravaggio" at least three times each involuntarily during the 80's, and it felt like punishment for letting Maggie win the Miner's Strike (I was only 15 fer Chrissakes!) inflicted by Lambeth Council's Gay and Lesbian Channel 4 Infiltration Wing.

If it was, I'd like to thank them, because they were both good films, but my real suspicion is the sadly deflationary thought that Channel 4 showed them then because they'd paid for them and were obliged to show them X times, and their next contract forced them to work with "new" "talent" (Boyle etc.) and had to spend the next decade showing their films X times.

i.e. the transfer of hegemony was purely accidental, and the paucity of Boyle's ideas is less grating to the general public because it's ideological and not visual, as was Greenaway's case (the tableaux idea tiring very quickly).

Phil Knight said...

Obvious but (possibly) original thought:

Jarman & Greenaway as the visual equivalent of mid-80's 4AD.

i.e. purveyors of tasteful disturbingness for the bourgeois connoisseur.

A niche market that proved not to be tenable over the longer term.

David W. Kasper said...

I like the 4AD analogy. 4AD was a precursor to UK ambient really. Like ambient was about getting tawtted in a tasteful, genteel manner, 4AD was about being a depressed, cider-guzzling dolie in a tasteful, genteel manner. Their 'design aesthetic' and oh-so-selective roster was like a gentrification of the audience's self-image.

But I digress. I like Greenaway, but Jarman? What a fuckin' charlatan! It's beyond me how he got away with it so long.

Phil Knight said...

Ah, I always liked the photography in Degsy's films, but it's been years since I've watched any of them - I bet they're real curio's now. I suspect the only people who still watch them are Jon Savage and Michael Bracewell.

Of course Jarmo and his associates Morrissey and the Pet Shop Boys formed one of the strangest cultural fronts of the '80's - the Patriotic Homosexuals Against Thatcher. I'm still not able to "unpack" that one.

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